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Set on the Altiplano 71km west of La Paz, the ancient ruined city of TIWANAKU (also spelt Tiahuanaco) is one of the most monumental and intriguing archeological sites in South America. Founded some three millennia ago, Tiwanaku became the capital of a massive empire that lasted almost a thousand years, developing into a sophisticated urban ceremonial complex that at its peak was home to some fifty thousand people whose great pyramids and opulent palaces were painted in bright colours and inlaid with gold. The city was in many ways the cradle of Andean civilization, making an enormous cultural impact throughout the region and providing the fundamental inspiration for the better-known Inca empire. Though the city of Tiwanaku originally covered several square kilometres, only a fraction of the site has been excavated, and the main ruins occupy a fairly small area which can easily be visited in half a day – the only other major site that has been excavated is Puma Punku, a pyramid complex a couple of kilometres to the north. The main ruins cover the area that was once the ceremonial centre of the city, a jumble of tumbled pyramids and ruined palaces and temples made from megalithic stone blocks. A couple of museums by the entrance house many of the smaller archeological finds. In view of recent bids to finance restoration here (see Akapana), there’s the possibility that the site may close temporarily so it’s worth checking with the tourist office in La Paz before heading out there.

Brief history

The Tiwanaku civilization was first established around 1200 BC, with an economy based on potato cultivation and llama herding. By 100 BC it had become an important urban centre, and an organized state with distinct classes of priests, warriors, artisans and aristocrats is thought to have emerged. By 400 AD this state controlled the whole Titicaca basin – an area of some 57,000 square kilometres extending out from the lake between Bolivia’s Cordillera Real and Peru and Chile’s Cordillera Occidental – and had begun extending its influence.

700–1000 AD

From around 700 AD Tiwanaku expanded rapidly to dominate an area comprising much of modern Bolivia, southern Peru, northeast Argentina and northern Chile. The key to this expansion was a remarkable agricultural system of raised fields, known as sukakullo, which revolutionized food production along the shores of Lago Titicaca and freed vast amounts of labour for the construction of monumental temples and palaces. It also allowed trade with other societies, though as their power grew, direct control of other regions through conquest or colonization probably came to replace this. Tiwanaku’s influence thus spread to encompass a vast area, crisscrossed with paved roads along which caravans of hundreds of llamas carried all kinds of produce to the centre of the empire.

Decline and abandonment

Some time after 1000 AD, Tiwanaku fell into a rapid and irreversible decline. The fields were abandoned, the population dispersed and, within a period of about fifty years, the empire disappeared, most likely due to climate change. Scientists studying ice cores from Andean glaciers have discovered that from about 1000 AD the region suffered a long-term decline in rainfall. Though the imperial storehouses could no doubt withstand a few lean years, this searing drought lasted for decades, even centuries. Unable to feed the hungry masses, Tiwanaku’s civilization collapsed.

The colonial era to the twentieth century

Most of the destruction of the remains of Tiwanaku occurred relatively recently. When the Spanish first came here many of the buildings were still standing, but the presence of gold meant that they quickly set about tearing them down. Licences to loot the site were handed out by the Spanish crown in the same way as for mining, and many of the great stones were dragged away to build churches and houses. Still more were destroyed with dynamite at the beginning of the twentieth century to provide gravel for the foundations of the railway that passes nearby, while early archeological excavations varied little in nature from the looting of the Spaniards, stripping the site of its most beautiful statues to adorn the museums of Europe and the US. After years of neglect and deterioration due to dampness, moss and lichen, moreover, the Bolivian government recently appealed to UNESCO for financial help and decided to initiate criminal proceedings against officials in charge of a previous restoration.

The museums

Adjacent to the site entrance are two museums, access to both of which is included in the ticket price; it is projected that much of the aforementioned financial help will be invested in the restoration of their contents.

The Museo Regional Arqueológico de Tiwanaku houses some of the site’s best carved stone idols and friezes, and there’s a big collection of ceramics, themselves the main means used to distinguish between the different eras in Tiwanaku civilization. The earliest pottery, from between about 1000 and 300 BC – a period known as the Village Stage or Tiwanaku I – consists mainly of simple but well-made pots, decorated with geometric incisions and designs (including puma and bird motifs) painted in red, white and yellow on a chestnut-brown background. Ceramics from the period known as the Urban Stage – Tiwanaku II, from about the first century AD – show a clear advance in quality and design, with finely made pots richly painted with multiple colours and highly burnished. Through the periods III to IV, up to the end of the first millennium AD, the pots become ever more elaborate and iconographically distinctive, with highly stylized feline and serpentine figures. Some are decorated with distinctive human faces that make it easy to believe the local Aymara when they claim to be directly descended from the builders of Tiwanaku.

The Museo Lítico, a rather forlorn annexe, houses a solitary if huge exhibit, the 7.3m-high Bennett monolith, or Pachamama, relocated from Miraflores a decade ago.

Akapana

As you enter the ruins, the big mound on your right is Akapana, a great earth pyramid with seven terraced platforms faced with stone. This was the biggest structure in the complex, measuring about 180m by 140m, and some 18m tall, and is thought to have been the city’s most important religious centre, constructed as an imitation of a sacred mountain. From the west it now looks more like a hill than a man-made feature, and in fact archeologists originally believed it had been built around a natural hill. You can still make out the pyramid’s seven tiers, however, and some of the huge stone blocks are still in evidence on the east side, many of them carved with a step motif characteristic of Tiwanaku.

Kalasasaya

Next to Akapana, to the north, is Kalasasaya, a walled temple compound that’s thought to have been the sacred centre of Tiwanaku, where the ruling god-emperors were buried. The stone walls of the complex are among the most impressive masonry still standing at the site, made with colossal megaliths weighing up to 150 tonnes interspersed with smaller blocks, and with carved stone drains that may also have been related to the ritual importance of water. The compound’s re-erected monoliths, alas, have suffered some of the most visible climatic damage in recent times. On the east side of the compound, a massive doorway is astronomically aligned so that the sun appears in its centre at the spring and autumn equinoxes.

The Puerta del Sol

Set into Kalasasaya’s northeastern corner is the iconic Puerta del Sol – the Gateway of the Sun – an elaborately decorated portico carved from a single piece of rock weighing ten tonnes that has sadly been broken, probably when it was moved here from its original location, believed to have been Puma Punku. The central figure above the doorway is the best-known image of Tiwanaku, probably the supreme creator god known to the Aymara as Thunupa and to the Incas as Viracocha. The 24 rays emanating from his head have led some to think of him as a sun god, but there’s not much evidence to suggest such a cult existed before the Incas: it’s more likely that they’re just a stylized representation of hair. From his arms hang severed heads, probably trophies of war. These are no mere metaphors: sixteen headless bodies were found during excavations in the Akapana pyramid, and human sacrifices involving decapitation are still occasionally reported around the shores of Lago Titicaca.

Putini and the Puerta de la Luna

Just west of Kalasasaya, ongoing excavations have revealed the remains of another extensive complex, known as Putini, which was probably a residential area for the city’s ruling elite, or possibly a burial area. Several enormous stones cut with holes big enough to accommodate human bodies led early twentieth-century investigators, no doubt influenced by their contemporaries’ fascination with Egyptology, to call it the “Palace of the Sarcophagi”.

To the northwest, the Puerta de la Luna – the Gateway of the Moon – is another gateway cut from a single piece of stone, though smaller and without the elaborate decoration of the Puerta del Sol.

Templete Semi-Subterraneo

East of Kalasasaya, the Templete Semi-Subterraneo – the Semi-Subterranean Temple – is a sunken rectangular patio about 2m deep whose walls are studded with almost two hundred carved stone heads, which jut out like keystones. These are thought to represent the gods of different ethnic groups conquered and absorbed into the expanding empire – they may even have been idols taken from these peoples and held as symbolic hostages to represent their submission to the supremacy of Tiwanaku.

Puma Punku

Set apart from the main complex, some 3km to the south on the other side of the road and the abandoned railway, are the ruins of another major pyramid, Puma Punko – the Gateway of the Puma. Similar in style and function to Akapana, though slightly smaller, this pyramid is believed to have been built some two hundred years later, in around 700 AD. The skill and exactitude with which the massive stone blocks were carved is deeply impressive, particularly in a society without iron tools.

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